Harriet Shapiro
October 03, 1983 12:00 PM

When she was a girl growing up in Paris, her playmates mocked her because of her flowery first name. “I think all my life I have fought for my name,” says Primrose Bordier. If so, le jour de gloire est arrivé. Today Primrose’s name, seeming exquisitely suitable, is at the top in the highly competitive field of designing household linens.

She doesn’t brag about it, but the splash of catsupy red she wears in her buttonhole is her country’s highest civilian honor, the Légion d’Honneur—bestowed for her contributions to French textiles. Primrose, in her 50s, is also the model for the heroine of Le Bon Plaisir, a book by Françoise Giroud, now being made into a film starring Catherine Deneuve. These are only symbols of her achievement: Her charming but never sappy designs for Descamps, the French textile giant, are turning up in elegant bedrooms and baths around the world, making the collaboration one of the major success stories in the home-furnishings industry. On these shores, everyone from Jackie O and Barbra Streisand to Donna Summer and Yoko Ono beds between Bordier’s oh-so-Continental sheets. “She is one of the great designers of our time,” says Harold (“Max”) Messmer, president of Cannon Mills. The New York firm ships Primrose’s linens to some 15 major department stores across America.

Primrose is not about to rest on her laurels. Early this summer, in a blur of activity, she met buyers at Paritex, the sprawling textile fair held every year outside Paris. The star designer was in elegant white, her lips marked in racy red lipstick. The tailored white was on purpose: Bordier, a brilliant colorist, takes great care not to clash with her work. As for her props, the half-dozen display beds were immaculately made up in Descamps linens and comforters, with matching towels and bathrobes laid out in neat piles. With a knot of buyers at her heels, she chatted up her latest designs, including sheets in abstract patterns a la Jackson Pollock and her winter 1984 line of colors: nighttime shades of mica and inky navy, sun colors of strawberry and periwinkle, and Sahara shades of mango and pebble gray. “Making these colors is dog’s work,” she said. “Nothing I do happens by accident. I am a purist and I won’t give in on a single detail.”

When she’s not whirling off to New York or Tokyo on business, Bordier works in a sunlit penthouse office, two minutes from the Arc de Triomphe and a brisk 10-minute walk to the Avenue Victor Hugo, where she grew up at No. 21 in a vast apartment with her parents, Marcel, a doctor, and Germaine, who served as a nurse at Verdun during World War I. Primrose shared the dormitory with her nanny and two brothers. “My mother thought she had three boys,” she says. “If I complained when one of them hit me, she said, ‘I had a brother, too. Fight it out yourself.’ As a result I fought very young and I learned to negotiate because I always needed one with me as protection.”

Life was also sometimes hard at the neighborhood convent school where the nuns—still in mourning for Marie Antoinette some 150 years after the fact—deemed plum a suitably grave color for their charges. “Plum now is considered a very pretty color,” says Primrose. “But when you are 5 years old and you have a yellow complexion and you wear a plum-colored uniform with a melon-shaped hat on your head, well, you are a mess, that’s certain.”

In 1947, after a year at drawing school, Primrose went to work at a textile design studio. “At that period a young girl was supposed to marry,” she remembers, “Otherwise she had no social position. But my parents had lost their money in the crash, so I had no choice. I think they would have preferred me to be the good little bourgeoise in the family.”

Bordier created her first sheet design, white cotton trimmed in plaid, at Cosserat, a velvet firm, in the mid-’50s. “In France at that time,” she explains, “there were no colored sheets, and terry-cloth towels were extremely ugly.” After a stint at Printemps (France’s Bloomingdale’s), Primrose struck out on her own, fighting to convince manufacturers to invest in the mammoth machines needed to turn out her printed sheets. She signed her first contract with Descamps in 1965.

The partnership has had its rough spots, but as marriages go, it’s a succès fou. Since 1972, when Descamps opened its first boutique, the company has expanded to 192 stores in 14 countries around the world, the vast majority of whose sales are Bordier designs. Gross sales this year are expected to reach $48 million.

At the end of each day, Primrose’s English chauffeur, John, whisks his mistress to her home in the Villa Montmorency, a sylvan enclave in Paris’ exclusive 16th arrondissement. “I am a snob,” she said, smiling. “I have an English driver.” Primrose adds, as if to explain, “My life is divided into three parts. As a little girl I survived, then I hibernated. And then I lived.”

For the past 17 years, away from her work, Primrose lived happily as Mme. Charles Gombault, wife of the retired editor of France-Soir, France’s most popular newspaper. Last month her husband died at 76, of complications following heart surgery, and Primrose was suddenly faced with a fourth stage in her life.

Earlier that month Primrose headed to New York, her fifth trip to the States this year, for Bloomingdale’s Fete de France. Along with Marc Bohan of Christian Dior and Givenchy, Bordier was one of the stars of the show. Still, she likes to keep things in perspective. “I am not fighting against cancer or working for UNICEF,” she says. “What I am doing is not that important. A towel is a towel, after all, and sheets are only sheets.”

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